Will a larger Trenton-Mercer Airport choke region with flights?

County officials forecast modest rise in flights, but critics predict more will come
Credit: (TastyPoutine via wikimedia; CC-BY-SA 3.0)
File photo: Trenton-Mercer Airport

A planned expansion of Trenton-Mercer Airport will result in only a few dozen extra flights a day over the next 15 years, Mercer County officials say. Opponents, however, pointing to four new taxiways and a much bigger terminal building, say that the county and the Federal Aviation Administration are planning a bigger expansion without saying so.

Almost five years after the first public meeting to discuss a new airport master plan, officials and community activists remain at loggerheads over whether an expanded airport will lead to a surge of new flights that would increase jet noise, worsen air quality and erode quality of life in west-central New Jersey and parts of eastern Pennsylvania.

County officials say the new taxiways are needed to increase safety, and not as a prelude to a lot more flights, as feared by critics. And they say the existing terminal building is too small to handle the current number of passengers, so a proposed quintupling in size to some 125,000 square feet would be justified.

The county says it has followed the FAA requirement for an Environmental Assessment of the effects of the expansion. Critics are calling for a more thorough Environmental Impact Statement but county officials say there’s no technical difference between the two types of study.

The expansion project will result in an increase of about 36 takeoffs and landings a day between 2020 and 2035 among the commercial, private and military aircraft using the airport, bringing the daily total to 261 by the end of the period, according to the latest figures from the county. Within the total, commercial flights are expected to increase by six a day to 34.

Disputing the numbers

That’s a lot less than critics predict, pointing to FAA guidance showing that each of the new taxiways for airports overall has a capacity of 200,000 takeoffs and landings every year, or almost twice the 108,000 recorded at Trenton in 2019.

But the airport’s manager, Melinda Montgomery, said her projections were developed in a process that is described in the master plan, and the 200,000 figure was approved by the FAA before the plan was finalized.

“The 200,000 takeoffs and landings is a number that is not based in any reality for this airport,” she said in a statement.

Robin Karpf, president of the campaign group Trenton Threatened Skies, argued that Montgomery was trying to deny that the extra capacity could exist at the airport if all the taxiways are built. “They don’t want to acknowledge that that capacity is possible,” Karpf said.

Montgomery also rejected a claim by Karpf that the airport “misrepresented” $1.5 million in funds from the FAA as being for maintenance whereas it was for a new taxiway.

Montgomery said the money was to allow the airport to apply for FAA funding to connect two taxiways, and was shown as a capital project in an updated master plan. “It is not a maintenance project,” she said.

Project needs FAA approval

Despite the enduring conflict between the two sides, there’s the possibility that the project might even be scrapped if the FAA asks for changes when it evaluates the Environmental Assessment and issues its ruling in a document called the Record of Decision, Montgomery said. She said the airport and the county have anticipated a favorable outcome from the FAA’s review, but if that doesn’t happen, it could force a rethink of the project. The FAA is expected to publish its Record of Decision by the end of September.

“If the Record of Decision from the FAA identifies issues that require further definition, evaluation, or constraints that would be reflected in design or construction, the County may need to re-evaluate advancing the Terminal project,” she said.

The FAA did not respond to a request for comment.

If the project goes ahead, it threatens to create a lot more air traffic than its supporters claim, said Judy Hoechner, a member of Trenton Threatened Skies, which demands a full environmental study, an independent examination of the costs to taxpayers, and a delay to construction until contaminants including PFAS — so-called forever chemicals — are evaluated and removed from the property.

“What we know is the capability will be very high,” said Hoechner, who lives in Yardley, Pennsylvania. “They are making airfield changes over there under the guise of safety that is truly for operations that will make them limitless. They don’t have the terminal space for that now, but it wouldn’t take much for them to double the number of gates once they have a new building.

“It’s the concern that they are creating the capability much more than they are saying, and they are doing it without doing environmental review. They are saying that all the changes they are making will not increase operations so they don’t have to look at the impact of the planes. This is the doublespeak that concerns us,” she said.

Who’ll pay $135M cost?

The $135 million project would be paid for by passenger fees, parking charges, and some operational efficiencies, county officials say.

Critics fear that construction would disturb toxic PFAS chemicals that have been found underground at the Naval Air Warfare Center Trenton, a shuttered military base adjoining the airport.

Two of the most commonly found chemicals from that family, PFOA and PFOS, were found in groundwater on the base in 2018 at a level thousands of times higher than the health limits recently set by New Jersey, according to Department of Defense data published by Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit that advocates for tighter controls on PFAS.

Tests in 2017 also found those chemicals and four others from the PFAS family in drinking water outside the former military base, showing that the contamination has spread. The specific locations of chemical detections aren’t recorded but are typically at private wells within a mile of a base, said Monica Amarelo, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit.

Rising concern about the presence of PFAS in drinking water was underlined in January when New Jersey sued the federal government, claiming the military had contaminated public drinking water on and around the Trenton base and two other installations, and must take responsibility for cleaning it up.

Asked whether construction would cause the chemicals to spread, Montgomery said the project will take PFAS into account.

“For the terminal project, we will be further identifying limits of PFAS soils and groundwater contamination, remediation and issues regarding construction impacts,” she said.

We’re in this together
For a better-informed future. Support our nonprofit newsroom.
Donate to NJ Spotlight